31° Palermo Ladies Open: The New “Normal” Life on Tour
As the first official tournament back on the main circuit after the COVID-19 shutdown and a resulting five-month break on Tour, there have been way more eyes turned towards the small WTA-International event in Palermo than in previous years. Providing a thrill of anticipation, many fans, as well as some players, have been desperately waiting for the main tour to officially resume after its enforced break. However, in the run-up to the tournament in Palermo, there were not only positive voices, but also some unsettled detractors.
With 250,000 confirmed cases, of which more than 35,000 people died (as of August 9, 2020), Italy ranks fourth in the list of most COVID-19 infections in Europe just behind the United Kingdom, Spain and Russia. Just recently, the statistical office “Istat” published a study which stated that almost 1.5 million people in Italy allegedly developed antibodies against the virus. “That is six times as many [people] as officially registered,” commented Istat director Laura Sabbadini. Overall, that corresponds to 2.5 percent of the population.
Just looking at the total numbers, however, does not do justice to the country, the tournament and especially those responsible. In the last few months, there have been a lot of commendable advances that increasingly justify a tournament in Italy, preferably Sicily, particularly as a location in Europe. Sicily has a significantly lower infection and transmission rate compared to most of the countries in Europe. Furthermore, the death rate in Sicily is only a fractional amount of the numbers recorded in central and northern European countries.
Nevertheless, the numbers of confirmed infected people have slightly increased again after previously settling down for weeks and months. The professional declaration for this is still pending.
Simona and Other Top Seeds Withdraw
As early as before the start of the tournament, those in charge of the Palermo Ladies Open suffered a big setback. World No. 2, Simona Halep, who was undoubtedly the biggest name in the field for the 31st edition of the tournament in Palermo, decided against traveling to Italy and participating in the competition.
"Given the recent rise in COVID-19 cases in Romania and my anxieties around international air travel at this time, I have made the tough decision to withdraw from Palermo. I want to thank the tournament director and the Italian ministry of health for all efforts on my behalf,” she posted on Twitter.
Immediately before Halep’s official cancellation, there have already been massive doubts whether the Roland Garros champion from 2018 was allowed to travel to Italy without having to quarantine prior to the tournament, as the Italian health minister announced that due to rising COVID-19 cases in Bulgaria and Romania, people from these countries would be forced to undergo a two-week quarantine.
As reported later, the measures should not apply to professional athletes with crammed schedules. Considering the new knowledge, the tournament organizers were not too happy about Halep’s withdrawal decision after putting large effort into receiving a special exception for her.
“We found out with great bitterness the decision of world number 2 to cancel her participation to the 31st Palermo Ladies Open... Yesterday we were optimistic, and we had informed Halep’s staff about the fact that professional players are not obliged to quarantine. Regional assessor of Health Ruggero Razza … had directly sent to Halep an official communication explaining how the Ordinance of the Ministry of Health was not to be applied to workers, therefore neither to professional tennis players. Nevertheless, Halep’s staff only communicated us the final decision, frustrating all our efforts. We are embittered and profoundly disappointed.”
In addition to Simona Halep, British Number 1 Johanna Konta as well as former 2017 French Open Champion Jelena Ostapenko, also decided against a participation in Palermo. World No. 15 Konta, however, claimed that she wanted to prepare for the upcoming US Open and therefore canceled her trips to clay tournaments as it did not fit into her schedule.
Bubble? What "Bubble"
Due to insufficient resources and financial aid availability, tournament director Oliveiro Palma announced earlier that there would not be a strict bubble in Palermo. It was nowhere near feasible to book the whole hotel exclusively for the players on-site.
Despite this conflict, the safety of the athletes naturally had the highest priority. The organizers did not want to make heavy mistakes, such as those that happened a few months ago during the Adria Tour, where the simplest of Covid-19 measures have not been observed.
"I see the Adria Tour as a failure," said tournament director Palma. "It showed a lack of respect to all the sacrifices many people had done to safeguard everybody’s health." In order to do justice to the high priority regarding the health of the players, a so-called “anti-Covid Team,” which was led by Antonio Cascio, a professor of infectious diseases at the university of Palermo, was organized.
“He [Antonio Cascio] will be helped by professor Francesco Vitale, who will analyze the tests in the university’s laboratory. The tests will be carried out on site in the Sicilian government’s Health Service camper. Basically, we will have the best expert that Sicily, a place that managed the pandemic with great success, can provide,” described Palma heading into the event.
Other strict safety measures, such as procuring your own towel during a match – which should be enforced even without a global pandemic – and constant hygiene checks on the training grounds, have been introduced as well. Despite all the strict precautions, players at the tournament were still allowed to leave the hotel and go on a city trip.
“They will all stay at the same hotel, where the strictest safety measures are respected. If they use all the due precautions, they might also have a tour of the city if they wish to, since the virus is barely circulating here. But it’s up to them,” Palma declared. 24-year-old Donna Vekic, who is ranked on #24 in the singles ranking and entered the main draw as the No. 6 seed, criticized this decision in advance to the event, but in the same breath confirmed that her and many other players on-site had taken advantage of the personal liberty. “Here they talk about us being in a bubble but it’s not at all. I don’t want to pretend that I’m locked in the room the whole day when I’m not. I went to dinner in the city...I’m not locked in the room and 90% of the players aren’t.
Vekic enjoyed popularity from Spaniard Georgina Garcia Perez, who only competed in doubles this week and eventually lost in the quarter-finals with her compatriot Sara Sorribes Tormo. “The WTA tells you that you must not leave the hotel... The first thing I saw is people non stop coming in and out. Nobody says anything, the security is zero, no one is controlling us," she stated.
The 28-year-old Spaniard, however, ultimately also had some good words left for the organizers shortly before leaving Palermo, saying in a post on social media: “Thank you @WTA @LadiesOpenPA for all the effort to put this event together. As a player, I am thankful to be competing in these difficult times and happy for the opportunity.”
Positive Feedback from Players
In addition to a few negative comments, there was, overall, a lot of support and respect coming from the players for the tournament staff. In a detailed interview with tennis365, the British doubles specialist Emily Webley-Smith said that many players were not fully aware of the complexity of implementing safety measures, as most of the players only learned to appreciate that difficult task as recently as being on-site at the tournament.
“None of us realized until you get on site how difficult the task is and people are working overtime to try and make it the safest environment possible for us,” she said. “It takes far more preparation than we realized and we have to be grateful that they are attempting to put these tournaments on for us to play. I do think it is very difficult for the tournaments. As time goes by, they will learn from each event and get better and better.”
Lara Arruabarrena, a clay-court specialist currently ranked outside the top 100 at #148, also shared her positive thoughts on Twitter regarding the solid work in Palermo. Ancillary to her compliments for the organizers, Arruabarrena also addressed clear criticism regarding the lack of personal responsibility of some of her competitors.
"I would like to thank the @PalermoLadiesOpen and @WTA for their efforts to resume the circuit. There are critics and different opinions, but everyone has to be responsible for their actions. We’re all adults here and, during these tough times, should behave with common sense and follow the protocols. Those who doesn’t want to play under these rules are not forced to do it". Other on-site athletes such as Romanian player Sorana Cirstea and Dutchwoman Bibiane Schoofs underlined her statement.
Positive Tests in Palermo
Just before the qualifying in Palermo was about to start on Saturday, the WTA has posted a statement in which was mentioned that a player set to participate has tested positive.
“A player has tested positive for COVID-19 at the 31st Palermo Ladies Open and has subsequently withdrawn from the tournament. The player is asymptomatic,” the WTA said. Although the WTA did not publish the name of the player at first, it later became known that the infected player was 25-year-old Bulgarian Viktoriya Tomova.
“Following this information, the WTA, in coordination with the Tournament Infection Control Officer and along with its medical advisers and infectious disease specialist from the Mayo Clinic, immediately put its COVID-19 response plan into action. “Any individual who tests positive will remain in isolation until cleared by a physician per the established protocols, and will receive proper medical treatment.”
Even before the news of Tomova, two other players had falsely been tested “positive” for COVID-19. One of them was doubles specialist Rosalie van der Hoek, who veritably had a positive test for antibodies from COVID-19, but whose PCR test turned out negative for plausible reasons. She described her incident on Instagram as follows: "Hi guys, I just wanna let you know that my PCR test came back negative! I did have positive test for antibodies from a COVID-19 infection I had earlier this year. I made a full recovery and looking forward to start playing again in Palermo this week!”
Almost every active tennis fan was eagerly awaiting the new, hitherto unknown “normal” life on tour. With many eyes on the event, it was therefore not a big surprise that discrepancies between the measures and the actual behavior of some players were noticed and criticized immediately.
Sara Errani, former French Open finalist from 2012, who got into the main draw with the help of a wildcard from the tournament director, caused the first minor “scandal” on Monday evening. After three hours, Errani finally converted her first match point against Sorana Cirstea to score her first top-100-victory since 2018. Probably still overwhelmed by her feelings of happiness, the former World No. 5, who currently sits on #150 in the singles ranking, tore off her wristband and tossed it into the socially distanced crowd. It was a clear violation against the predefined Covid-19 measures, however the action remained unpunished. The referee in charge of the match just shook her head in dismay and crossed her hands in front of her face. “Old habits die hard,” was the most common response in retrospect to the involuntary occurrence.
From a sporting point of view, the tournament ended in a terrific success for Errani. She eventually reached the quarter-final of a WTA main tour event for the first time since her doping ban two years ago. In addition to two top 100 victories she secured on her way into the quarterfinal, the Bologna-Native showed that she worked hard on her serve, as she only hit six double faults in her three matches in Palermo. Such statistics were very unforeseeable just a few months ago, when Errani almost only hit underarm-serves and up to 10+ double faults in each match.
However, Errani was not the only player to commit an infraction towards the defined measures at the 31° Palermo Ladies Open. Despite the umpire’s advice to refrain from it, 19-year-old teenager Kaja Juvan did not shy away from tossing her wristband and towel into the crowd after securing an upset-win against last year’s French Open finalist Marketa Vondrousova. In a later recorded interview, Juvan said: "Obviously, we get tested a lot so I understand their concern … But all of us that are here are negative, I got the [test] result again today so I thought: 'OK well I might as well give it to them.'"
Overall, from a personal view, the return of professional Tennis in Palermo has been a solid success for the WTA. However, what many people, as well as players on-site of the tournament did not consider is that hosting the tournament in Palermo embodied no added value for the tournament organizers in purely economic terms. As a matter of fact, they were even losing money by putting on the event. 15% of the total revenue usually comes from ticket purchases, which were strictly limited this time. Only 350 seats could be filed with spectators, which constitutes a reduction of 77% compared to 1500 spectators allowed under normal circumstances.
The overhead costs that had to be covered this year also included several corona measures, such as providing an anti-corona team as mentioned in the text before. The fact that the tournament director still decided to hold the event under such conditions, does not only show the respect for the city and its population, but also for the athletes on Tour. It is a massive evidence of appreciation. This week showed that it is indeed possible to build a stable framework to stage such an event even with radically limited capacities. However, I still do not think that this week will be a big encouragement for other organizers (without big sponsors) to provide a lower-level Tournament in these currently tough times.
After all, the difficult task to conceivably encourage organizers to host small events, solely lies in the hand of the WTA. Much more financial help is needed, especially with the tough restrictions for organizers to earn money on-site at the moment. With no further cash help being planned yet, an imbalanced level of appreciation becomes quite evident at this point.
Despite all the chorus of praise for the providers in Palermo, criticisms towards non-compliance of Corona measures would certainly not unjustified in some cases. I am not referring to the “old habits” of Errani here, but much more to the non-compliance of umpire suggestions on behalf of Juvan. The incubation period of the virus of two to fourteen (!) days has completely been left out in her chain of thought. A tournament can only take place successfully, if players participating in an event put aside their egoism, ignorance and lack of willingness to adapt in case there are strict rules. At the end of the day, the athletes are still those considered the main protagonists fighting for their prize money and ranking points.
This week, there were still some disagreements between the official rules from the WTA and those defined in Palermo, for example when the tournament allowed players to go on a city trip even though the WTA posted a statement which explained that “players are not allowed to break out of their hotel quarantine.”
Such discrepancies in rules should urgently be avoided in the upcoming events.